Business English Writing

The Business of Business Correspondence

When I started coaching people on their English writing, I soon noticed a curious pattern among the adults who sought me out.

Most are in their late 30s or early 40s. They usually have an expertise in, say, finance or accounting. For a decade or so, they managed to thrive in the workplace, thanks to their mastery of technical stuff. It was when they get promoted to middle or senior management, however, that they run into a wall: the technical stuff is now being done by the people who report to them; their hours at the desk are instead spent on coaxing subordinates into giving their best, cushioning the friction between the top brass and rank and file, placating irate clients, and reprimanding underperforming suppliers without alienating them.

Most of the time, these missives have to be written in English. Not infrequently, their intended recipients are English-speaking professionals working in different time zones.

It would be a mistake to assume only Chinese people are angst-filled when they have to figure out the appropriate tone and wording to use for correspondence that can affect the bottom line. This ability doesn’t come naturally to native speakers either, so much so that no less a figure than the world-renowned leadership expert John Zenger has urged professionals to consciously cultivate communication skills as a career-boosting strategy.

“If you’re technically adept,” Zenger writes in a Harvard Business Review piece he co-authored, “delving even more deeply into technical manuals won’t get you nearly as far as honing a complementary skill such as communication.”

To see Zenger’s point, imagine this scenario: your stingy and EQ-deficient boss has finally decided to give a good employee he has been underpaying a measly raise. In return, however, he is going to insert in her contract a clause requiring her to stay with the company for two years.

Below are two versions of the email you could write to dissuade him from imposing this ridiculous demand. There is no question that the second one – tactful in wording, restrained in tone – is more likely to do the job.


I’m writing with regard to the issue of inserting a clause in X’s contract to force her to stay for 24 months in return for a $4K monthly raise..

To retain talent, salary is only one factor. Employees also consider factors like company prospects, office atmosphere, promotion opportunities. and work-life balance etc.

Since the salary bump you are planning to give her is so low, and since the 24-month requirement is so strict, I think your plan will have an adverse effect. She will think we want her to be here not because she is good, but because we don’t want to give our clients the impression that the turnover at our firm is high.


As our firm navigates what looks to be a rather bumpy 2022-2023 – one that will no doubt require all hands on deck – there’s an issue you might want to consider.

The course of action under consideration on the HR front – that we ask X to commit two years to our company as a condition for receiving a salary bump – may not go over well with her. Both of us know she is already being paid at a rate slightly below the market; she knows that we know. If we compel her to stay, we run the risk of sabotaging the camaraderie that’s currently inducing her to not only remain but to remain and work hard.

As Senior Manager, I naturally spend  more time with the team than you do, which gives me  a better picture of what makes them tick. My view is (1) X is likely to pledge her next two years to us without a clause forcing her to do so, and (2) should the clause be inserted, the possibility of her forgoing the raise and looking for a new job instead can’t be completely discounted.

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